[Note: This is a post I did back in 2004 on Roman Catholics and the natural law of America's Founding which I thought readers here would enjoy.]
The conference that I attended at Princeton brought an irony to mind—an irony that often impresses itself when I reflect on the work of the Claremont Institute: the way that orthodox Catholics, more effectively than Protestant fundamentalists, can make seemingly dogmatic religious arguments while still appealing to, and appearing to be consistent with, founding principles.
The conference was very much a “natural law” conference—literally the most distinguished (Thomistic) natural lawyers in the world were present there. And it was also heavily Catholic attended.
This nation was founded by, for the most part, Protestants. There were very few Catholics and our founders—wary of the horrible record possessed by the Roman Church on issues of religious persecution and deprivation of liberty—and if you’ve read some of the things they said about the Church—were practically anti-Catholic bigots.
For instance, this passage by John Adams:
I do not like the reappearance of the Jesuits….Shall we not have regular swarms of them here, in as many disguises as only a king of the gypsies can assume, dressed as printers, publishers, writers and school masters? If ever there was a body of men who merited damnation on earth and in Hell, it is this society of Loyola’s. Nevertheless, we are compelled by our system of religious toleration to offer them an asylum.
John Adams, Letter to Thomas Jefferson, May 5, 1816.
This nation was founded on “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” And these laws are ascertainable by man’s reason, wholly unassisted by faith or by Biblical Revelation, and these rules certainly didn’t need to be confirmed by any ecclesiastical authority. In other words, this nation was founded on reason, nature, or philosophy.
As Adams put it:
The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature.... [In] the formation of the American governments ... it will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of heaven.... These governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.
John Adams, A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, 1788
Those who would derive political authority or political “truths” from Biblical Revelation alone—which seems to be the way in which many Protestant fundamentalists operate—are anathematized according to this nation’s founding principles, properly understood. Likewise, those who appeal to ecclesiastical authority alone (the Pope says it, therefore we have to make it into law), are equally anathematized. So, if Catholics want to write the Church’s official opinions into law, simply because they are the Church’s opinions—this no more comports with our founding principles than Protestants believing, “if it’s in the Bible, then it ought to be public law.”
Yet, Catholics, unlike most orthodox Protestants, have embraced philosophy—seeking Truth by observing nature using unassisted reason—which has its antecedents in Aristotle and, for Catholics, sees its fullest expression in Aquinas. And many official Catholic doctrines are derived not from the Bible alone, or ecclesiastical authority alone (or some combination thereof), but from (their understanding) of the natural law. In other words, the Papal authorities, when they issue their official doctrines, often make arguments, based on universal principles of nature and reason, to justify their case. And basing laws on universal rational principles is what our nation is founded on.
So for instance, when Catholic natural lawyers Robert P. George and Gerard V. Bradley, drafted a brief on behalf of the Family Research Council in defense of sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas, they did not appeal to literal passages in the Bible, or the Pope’s ecclesiastical authority in attempting to make a legal argument as to why such laws should remain on the books—to do so would be un-American. Rather they appealed to an Aristolean-Aquinas understanding of “nature” that is ascertainable by man’s reason alone.
In other words, they can reasonably argue that they appealed to “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” This morning, watching a show on America’s Founding Principles, put on by Rev. D. James Kennedy, Roy Moore was called upon to “inform” us what the “laws of nature and nature’s God” really mean. And he answered, predictably, “everything that’s written in the pages of the Bible.” In other words, Biblical Revelation, unaided by Man’s Reason. And in fact, he got it exactly wrong, exactly backwards, and in doing so demonstrates the abysmal ignorance of Protestant fundamentalists who argue that America is a “Christian Nation,” in a public, governmental sense.
Now that’s not to say that what is written in the Bible NEVER reflects the natural law—that the two are mutually exclusive phenomena. Indeed, what the Thomistic natural lawyers will tell you—what any natural lawyer will tell you—what’s written in the Bible often dovetails with natural law (Harry Jaffa and Claremont commonly stress that Reason & Revelation largely agree on most matters). But in order to be a valid basis for a public act, a particular move must have a “public reason” or must be vetted by natural reason, in addition to whatever support there is in the Bible for it.
William Galston, at the conference, gave a great anecdote illustrating this: In Genesis we see Abraham remonstrating with God about God’s plan to destroy Sodom & Gomorrah. Abraham is concerned that God would destroy the unjust along with the just. This implies that even God can be unjust—that there are certain objective standards of justice that men can know for themselves that are independent of the arbitrary actions of the Creator. And indeed God does obey the natural law by agreeing not to destroy those cities if indeed there are a certain number of righteous to be found there. And when the cities were destroyed, it was only the guilty who got it (Lot and his family were spared). That is a passage of the Bible that confirms natural law—that there are independent rational standards of justice that are known cross-culturally and exist outside of Biblical Revelation and that God Himself will not violate.
And even many socially liberal natural lawyers such as myself can find many parts of Biblical Revelation that serve as good grounds for public policy. For instance, “thou shall not kill; thou shall not steal….”
We can base public policy on the principles illustrated in those certain passages of the Bible. However, certain passages of the Bible give no public reasons needed to serve as legitimate bases for public policy.
For instance—again part of Galston’s analogy—when God asks Abraham to kill his son Isaac, there is no reason or rhyme to be found. The righteousness of that passage must be accepted by faith alone; it has no explanation or verification in nature or reason. As such, it would be wholly inappropriate for that passage of the Bible to have anything to do with public policy or our public laws. It would be perfectly fine for that Biblical passage to be part of the laws of the conscience of an individual, but no more.
But I digress.
On another note—I also find it a little odd that some prominent non-Catholics, for instance, Hadley Arkes (who was at the conference) and Harry Jaffa (who wasn’t), posit a very Thomistic, Catholic, understanding of nature…but without being Catholics themselves. And correspondingly, Jaffa and Arkes have a big following among doctrinaire Catholics. For instance, the Claremont Institute has a heck of a lot more conservative devout Catholic members and followers than they do of Protestant fundamentalists who care very little for “man’s reason unassisted by faith.” And Arkes commonly writes for Richard John Neuhaus Catholic Theocon Magazine, First Things.
And of course, there is the whole issue of whether when men like Jefferson, Madison, and Adams spoke of “the laws of nature and nature’s God” that they were referring to a Thomistic understanding of nature. Personally, I don’t think they were. But that’s a topic for another discussion.